Alongside the implementation of policies and practices for managing and responding to workplace misconduct, employers have traditionally sought to mitigate the risk of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct through compliance-based training, often facilitated by Human Resources or Legal and Compliance.
Compliance-based training is concerned with transferring knowledge regarding organisational policy and processes and the business costs of workplace misconduct, interspersed with cautionary examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and obligations under legislation. In many jurisdictions, compliance-based training and effective grievance systems are a defence in legal claims.
Research indicates that although compliance-based training has been somewhat effective in raising awareness of the behaviours that constitute workplace misconduct and the processes for raising and responding to a grievance, compliance-based training has not been successful in changing attitudes or behaviours. Even more problematic, traditional compliance-based training can trigger negative emotional responses like denial and defensiveness, or anger and hostility, which can worsen attitudes towards groups that are more commonly targets of workplace misconduct.
The researchers assert that the negative outcomes of compliance-based training occur because training objectifies participants as perpetrators or victims and increases divisions. For example, a study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2001, found that men who underwent 30 minutes of sexual harassment training were less likely than a control group to perceive or report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim. While men who received sexual harassment training were less likely to engage in such behaviour, it was likely due to fear of being accused rather than any improvements in attitudes towards women. The researchers suggested that the training might have made the men feel attacked—consciously or not—and that the backlash might have been an “effort at self-preservation.” Moreover, individuals who enter sexual assault and harassment training with the most biased attitudes exit having learned the least.
Poor training can also leave individuals unclear and confused about what behaviours constitute misconduct and what don’t. In one study of managers, trained managers were no more able to identify proper responses to harassment after training than untrained managers and, post-training, they tended to identify scenarios as harassment that really were not. This can lead to anxiety and a tendency to avoid contact with women or other vulnerable groups for fear of doing the wrong thing or being falsely accused. Fear and suspicion in a workplace setting can only be detrimental to productive relationships.
Compliance-based training has also been shown to be ineffective at increasing confidence in the organisation’s grievance system. Unless victims perceive that the cultural context is supportive and they will be protected from retaliation, increasing awareness of organisational processes does not increase the likelihood that those with a grievance will raise a complaint. If the cultural context is permissive of workplace misconduct, victims are unlikely to trust or access organisational processes.
Given the prevalence of workplace misconduct and its serious consequences for victims, the wider workforce, and employers, researchers have sought to test the efficacy of alternative approaches to training. Drawing from this research, there are some steps that organisations can take to improve the efficacy of their anti-harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct programs:
1. Pay attention to training program design and delivery
A meta-analysis of 65 studies on diversity and sexual harassment training, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2013, suggests that it is possible to teach people how to identify misconduct—and to convey how company policies treat it—without inciting a backlash effect. Factors that determine a program’s effectiveness include:
- Training that happens in-person and for longer produce a bigger effect; short and virtual trainings have less of an impact
- Experiential training that requires participants to interact with each other is more effective than lecture-based training
- Participants learn more from supervisor-or external expert-led training and less when the leader is a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work
Other research shows training is enhanced when people are asked to set personal goals for how they will change their workplaces for the better.
2. Use empathy-focused interventions
Studies show that the emotional brain is a more effective motivator of behavioural change than the rational brain. For example, research shows that when men actively take the perspective of a victim of sexual harassment, there’s a lower likelihood that they will sexually harass.
Emotion researchers define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions. A commonly used technique for fostering empathy is perspective-taking—actively imagining the feelings and thoughts of others. Sharing the real-life stories of employees who have suffered from bias, harassment or sexual-misconduct evoke empathy and engage leaders on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. Workplace misconduct programs should encompass empathy-based activities such as descriptive victim-centred case studies to engage participants emotionally in behavioural change.
3. Incorporate bystander strategies
Bystander training transfers tools that individuals can use to intervene in incidents of workplace misconduct. Because costs can accompany intervention, effective bystander training uses evidence-based intervention techniques that minimise backlash and tools for handling objections or negative responses. For example, if the harasser reacts angrily, one can defuse the situation by separating the the harasser’s action and its impact from their intention.
Bystander programs start with the assumption that trainees are allies working to solve the problems of misconduct rather than potential perpetrators. The message is that it is everyone’s responsibility is foster a safe and respectful work setting. Results from bystander training show it is effective at increasing intervention. Even months after the training, trainees are significantly more likely than others to report having intervened in real-life situations.
4. Design respect-based interventions
A 2016 Equal Opportunity Commission (US) report suggested that traditional harassment training should be replaced with “respect-based interventions”. Similarly, in an interview for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, was quoted as saying the workplaces she knows that manage sexual harassment well are the ones that have a strong sense of respect. “A written policy is not the thing that protects, it’s that thing in the middle: the culture.” Research has shown that, consistent with social science research, employees are more likely to respond to a moral framework than a legal framework.
Respect exists when all employees feel valued, empowered, and safe. Respect-based misconduct training starts with emphasising the benefits of creating a culture that promotes respect rather than focusing on punitive ramifications. This sort of civility training puts the focus on cultivating a positive workplace context through engaging in respectful interactions rather than policing behaviours.
A respect-based approach shifts the focus from what one can’t do to how employees and leaders can individually and collectively foster safe and inclusive workplaces, including monitoring themselves and others for violating behaviours, empathetic communication, effective conflict resolution, and the proper use of power.
Respect-based interventions emphasise that every member of the organisation is a cultural-carrier with a moral obligation to promote a safe working environment for all. Employees develop a vision of safe and inclusive workplace and enter into a social contract to achieve that goal.
5. Focus on leadership modelling
The only thing that prevents misconduct is a company culture that simply doesn’t tolerate it. The most effective interventions for workplace misconduct have visible and committed senior leaders who set the tone for cultural change.
Studies have examined how organisational culture factors into training effectiveness. One study found knowledge and personal attitudes were changed for employees who perceived that their work unit was ethical, regardless of their personal sense of cynicism about whether the training might be successful. In a second study, employees who already believed that their employers tolerated sexual harassment took that cynicism into training sessions and were less motivated to learn from it. That sense of futility affected their belief about whether training would be useful, more even than their own personal beliefs about sexual harassment.
Because workplace environments influencing employees’ attitudes towards training and its effectiveness, employers need ensure the cultural environment of their organisation is supportive. Culture is ultimately created by leaders. Leaders must publicly take responsibility for the problem and model, promote and reward safe and respectful interactions, bystander behaviour, and a speak-up culture.
Engaging leaders in cultural change repositions leaders as the drivers of solutions rather than potential perpetrators. Engaging leaders as agents of positive change increases engagement and decreases the risk of backlash from compliance-based approaches.
6. Use relevant examples
The scenarios used in misconduct training should reflect the everyday activities, roles, experiences, anxieties, and power or peer dynamics relevant to the employer.
7. Run stand-alone training programs, not bundled compliance modules
Misconduct training should be elevated beyond other compliance training to make clear that it’s a critical component of the company’s culture and ensure that it isn’t lost among other onboarding and training initiatives.